Don’t Negotiate with Torturers

Question: How do you respond to “ticking-time-bomb” scenarios that justify torture?

Tom Malinowski: I’m familiar that academics love to spin really interesting scenarios involving unsolvable moral dilemmas. That’s something that’s really fun if you’re running a seminar at Harvard University. I think that [it has] virtually no relationship to what goes on in the real world. So-called “ticking-time-bomb” scenarios in which you refer to when people say, “What if we got a terrorist, and we know that that terrorist knows where a bomb is going to go off in 48 hours. That’s going to kill a lot of innocent people, and he’s not willing to tell us where.” Wouldn’t you be willing to torture that person under that circumstance, if that’s the only way to get the information?

Lot of ifs there in that scenario. Problem is, in the real world, that doesn’t happen. First of all, you never pick up somebody and know that that person knows a bomb is going to go off. You never know that there’s a bomb about to go off in a particular time, you don’t know where it’s going to go off, and then suddenly by chance you capture someone and you know that that person knows the one thing that you don’t know. Second of all, in the real world, you pick up a terrorist who’s a member of a cell or an organization that is in fact about to do something really awful—the very fact that you have arrested that terrorist means almost certainly that his cell or organization is going to cancel their plans or alter them because they know that they’re going to be compromised. And so in the real world when we pick up people, when the CIA picks up people, or the military or the FBI, what they’re asking about is not the ticking bomb, what they’re asking about is who are the names of your co-conspirators? Where do they bank? What are their cell-phone numbers? Tell us about how you operate; the kinds of things that you are planning. Not because we know those things are going to happen, but just to get a sense of how they operate. And all of those are really vital pieces of information. And you interrogate a hundred people in Al Qaeda, you put all that stuff together, you’re going to avert attack and you’re going to save lives. But it’s not the same thing as a ticking bomb, and everybody we pick up in Afghanistan, everyone we pick up in Iraq, everyone we pick up in a safe house, in Paris, or London, or Manila may have some small piece of that larger puzzle. And so, in the real world, when you start making this ticking bomb argument and you apply it to those cases, eventually you end up torturing hundreds or thousands of people—which is what happened. So, it’s a fun academic exercise that has very dangerous consequences in the real world.

Question: Is there any evidence that torture is useful?

Tom Malinowski: Torture is incredibly useful if your goal is to extract confessions from people. If I know that I want you to tell me that you were plotting to overthrow the government of the United States or Saudi Arabia, or Russia, or China. Torture is an incredibly useful tool to get you to tell me that, even if it’s not true. And that’s what it’s used for by brutal regimes around the world. If my goal is to humiliate you, to punish you, to make you feel helpless, to make you feel like there is no hope for you, and I’m in total control over you. Torture is an incredibly effective tool, and that’s another thing that torture is used for by brutal regimes around the world. But if my goal is to get you to tell me something that is true and that I don’t already know, torture is one of the least effective methods that I can use. Because what you’re likely to do if I torture you for some information is to try to calculate in your own mind, what do I want to hear? And then you are going to tell me that thing that I want to hear so that I would stop torturing you. And what I want to hear may not be the truth; it may just be what I want to hear. So most experienced intelligence gatherers and interrogators will say it’s the worst thing you can do. And I think looking back over the last eight years we probably lost a lot more lives as result to torture than, than we saved, if we saved any.

Question: Why should we all be human rights advocates?

Tom Malinowski: We should all be human rights advocates. We don’t all have to be activists, we should all be human rights advocates because that’s the moral basis of our civilization—to have a set of rules that prevent cruelty, mistreatment, abuse of our dignity and our liberty by those who have power over us in other respects, and because it’s in our interest.

Most of the world’s most pressing problems, I’ve always thought, are fundamentally rooted in dysfunctional relationships between people and their governments. Think about all the conflicts of the 20th century. World War II was fundamentally rooted in the rise of regimes and countries like Germany that were based on the suppression of liberty, that were based on the notion that one man or one government could and should seek absolute power over everybody else, which in turn lead to conquest and war and the crisis that we have to respond to in enormous cost of lives.

The Cold War was fundamentally rooted in the suppression of liberty in Eastern Europe by the Soviet empire. Something that caused enormous tension and insecurity and led to a 50-year struggle by the United States that also cost us a great deal. Most of the conflicts that we’ve responded to as a country, whether the awful war in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990’s, were rooted in human rights abuses.

The Iraq conflicts of the last ten years go back to 1988-89 when Saddam Hussein was using poison gas against his own people and the world did nothing about it. He drew the conclusion, I think, from that episode that he could get away with anything, and so he invaded Kuwait. And we had a Gulf War, and then we had sanctions, and then we had an invasion, and all of that terrible history that we suffered as result of that active indifference. So if we care about the character of the world in which we live, if we care about avoiding conflicts and crises that draw [us] in and forces [us] to expend lives and treasure to resolve, then you have to care about fixing the underlying problem of how people are treated by their governments.

Recorded on:  July 29, 2009

Tom Malinowski, the Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, explains the dangers of even theoretically rationalizing torture, and calls on us all to be human rights advocates.

Videos
  • Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
  • But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
  • Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.


Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less